Technology hits the sweet spot

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
The exhibition and education showcase at this year's Scottish Learning Festival entertained and inspired teachers and pupils

Five feet tall with flashing eyes, the steel-blue robot seems way too much technology to be giving out sweets at the Scottish Learning Festival. "I'm Oscar," he says. "Would you like to shake my hand?"

Delighted schoolgirls take turns to clasp the clear plastic, but a teacher is sceptical. "Where are you?" he asks, looking around the stand of computer-maker Dell.

"Right here," Oscar points out.

"I don't believe it. You're a human somewhere and trying to pull the wool over my eyes."

"I don't have any wool," Oscar replies in a south London accent. "If I did, I'd knit myself a jumper."

Children and teacher laugh and move on to their next encounter on the exhibition floor.

A vast space filled with people and stands, this is where well-laid plans unravel, as friends bump into each other, go for coffee at the TESS Cafe, drop in and out of discussions. But a good way of knitting impressions into a narrative is to take a cue from the teacher and look for the human vision behind the technology.

Within the stark white panels of the Education Showcase - a rolling programme of "good practice, demonstrations and drama" - it's standing room only at the final of Dragon's Den, where school groups of young computer-games creators present concepts to three business experts. "Fantastically creative ideas from our schoolchildren," Derek Robertson sums it up. "The engagement, the challenge, the enjoyment, the imagination - great stuff."

"Really inspiring," says online expert and educator Leon Cych, who has driven up from London. "They are working collaboratively doing stuff in the real world. This is the highlight of the festival for me."

Along at the Glowing Lounge, another programme of practitioner presentations is going out live through Glow around the country, explains development officer Jennifer McDougall. "We have this area where teachers can share ideas with the national team. The lounge is twice as big as last year but it's still been mobbed. We've been hearing about kids working through Glow with schools in Germany and Poland - it's international now."

Last year's lounge seminars were the national team talking about Glow possibilities, says development officer Katie Barrowman. "This year it's practitioners talking about what they've been doing. They can still learn from us, but the big difference is, we're learning from them."

At the exit from the lounge, youngsters from Gavinburn Primary in West Dunbartonshire, who have been participating through Glow in Oscar Stringer-inspired animation projects with schools around the country, are skilfully manipulating clay and cameras. "This is fascinating," says learning and literacy consultant Bill Boyd. "It might not be text but it is a form of narrative - educationally that's what's important."

Sometimes the technology is so impressive that the human side needs searching out. Fresh from their "Glow - getting started" seminar, teachers from South Ayrshire pick out their favourites on the floor.

"The new Smartboards are far superior to ours," says Avril Taylor of Girvan Primary. "They're touch-sensitive, so kids can use their fingers. Ours need special pens that cost pound;60. It also means infants who can't hold a pen can use the board. I wonder if we can find the money ."

Richard Denton is more confident about getting a new product for Forehill Primary. "pound;300 gives you a whole-school licence," he says, indicating the dance mats at the stand of Dundee company Ink Learning. "You get two mats with phonics and maths software, and teachers can devise their own programmes. I'm going to talk to my head today and see if we can order it."

Sometimes it's the technology that is elusive and human vision takes centre stage. "The best part of the festival is this buzz you hear all around," says learning consultant Laurie O'Donnell.

"That's teachers talking about things that have inspired them. For many, it's been Carol Dweck's seminar on growth mindsets. Everyone knows that telling children they're stupid harms their learning. But it's not obvious that telling them they're clever can have a similar effect. That's had a big impact on teachers."

Artist Graham Ogilvie is doing his best to preserve the transient buzz on the floor, as he sketches on a flipchart beside a wall papered with text and cartoons. "I chat to people passing, ask them what they've seen, what they like or dislike. Then I pick out a sentence and illustrate it with a cartoon. They love seeing their thoughts emerge in images."

Back at the Dell stand, the balance of human and technology has just become clear to the sceptical teacher as he spots a narrow slit in a dark panel. "Someone in there is doing Oscar's talking," he says.

"Yeah," the salesman admits. "Technology's useful but you need people too."

The Scottish Learning Festival is run by Learning and Teaching Scotland, and the exhibition organised by Emap Connect


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